A dog cowering inside a cage at a puppy mill. USDA photos courtesy of Mary LaHay
For one week during the winter of 2005, I worked for a puppy mill. A friend and I had been hired to drive a van across the country—the company served as a middleman between major dog-breeding facilities in Iowa and various stores between there and New York City. When I signed up for the job, I had no idea that I would be committing a crime, nor that I would be participating in an industry of torture that would haunt me forever.
My friend (whom I will name Pete) and I were in our early 20s and had barely traveled outside of our rural homelands. This was our chance to explore the country while making some quick, much-needed cash (as dropout artists, we went through jobs like tissues). And puppies! My twee little heart fluttered at the idea of it: driving through Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and NYC, the urban jungles of our musical heroes, mythical landscapes we’d only read about in magazines and biographies—all in a van with maybe four or five purebred baby dogs on our laps, eagerly exploring this exotic new world alongside us.
Pete had arranged the job. We were to make the first pickup at 5 AM on a January morning. Half asleep and stumbling across the pre-dawn gravel, I first noticed the smell. Then the screams.
Unlike Pete, I hadn't grown up working on a farm. Though I’d spent enough time on them to not be phased by the noxious smell of fertilizer or the piercing sound of a pig giving birth, this was something else—like a jet-engine blowing through a garbage dump, a horror show unlike anything I’d seen in my 22 years as an Iowa resident.
The building was a long aluminum hangar lit by pulsing florescent lights shining down on a seemingly endless corridor of wire kennels. The kennels were stacked six or seven high, with three or four dogs crammed into each one. Dachshunds, bulldogs, beagles, huskies, mastiffs, pugs, rottweilers—all less than eight weeks old. They were everywhere, stacked above my head, hundreds of them, all clamoring for attention with a frenetic urgency. These were not the playful barks of excitement we associate with viral YouTube videos. There was no mistaking the sounds as anything but pained screams.
I couldn’t blame them, since I wanted to scream myself. The stench of hundreds of dogs pissing and shitting all over one another inside an enclosed space sent me running for the bathroom, where I quickly vomited up my morning coffee. We carried two collies and three Great Danes to the van, each of them no bigger than a loaf of Wonderbread. Like the mill, the kennels in the van were also stacked one on top of the other. I began to load each dog into his/her own kennel—which had a wire-floor with sawdust beneath, to catch the waste—but Pete was putting two or three into each kennel, keeping room for the massive amount of dogs to come. My Scooby-Doo fantasy of only half a dozen puppies was clearly a joke.
The entire time we worked, an adult female dog was chained to the ground, barking helplessly as she watched her children being taken away. Her bark was weak and hoarse. I would later learn she’d had her voice box removed.
This is often the part of the story where I’m asked: Why did you continue the trip after seeing what you were getting into? Why didn’t you just refuse the job and run home—by foot if necessary?
“You ate a breakfast burrito from McDonald's this morning—what do you think it looks like where the chicken in that burrito is made?” Pete asked me in the van after I told him I thought it was disgusting how these puppies are treated "The people who buy these dogs at their local mall, they can afford to not know where their puppies come from. But we’re poor, so we see behind the curtain. We work behind the curtain.”
Pete grew up a proper farmboy, collecting the semen of hogs and slitting the throats of turkeys. My sensitivity toward animals was a liability in that world, something a few years of bullying taught me to keep to myself. When I was a kid my friends cherished torturing cats and squirrels, and if I didn’t hide my tears I might receive the same kerosene and lit match treatment. (Up until the 19th century, public cat burnings were a popular form of entertainment in France.)
I certainly wasn’t raised to have empathy toward animals. The idea of pets baffled my dad, who was unable to see an animal as anything other than meat or a nuisance. So where did this outrage come from? At 22 I didn’t know, and was only just then beginning to realize that there were other people in the world who could read the pain in the eyes of animals like I did. Yet I still didn’t have the resolve to put my foot down and protest when something didn’t feel right.
When the van was full, we had more than 100 dogs in there. We were required to keep this vehicle moving 24 hours a day, with one person sleeping while the other drove. There was little time to feed or give water to the dogs, and none to let them out of their cages. Attempting to dull the smell, we cracked the windows, but this was January in the Midwest with a 30-below windchill, and the company back in Iowa warned us to not let the puppies catch pneumonia and die (though if they did, this was an anticipated bit of collateral damage when shipping product).
Both Pete and I would get quite ill during this trip: Flu-like symptoms mixed with our sleeplessness and the incessant sound of crying puppies to slowly strip us of resolve. My heart lifted slightly each time we unloaded a few of the dogs at some corporate pet store, but when we reached Chicago, one store owner followed us back to our van and said, “Don’t get pulled over in Illinois with your van looking like that: You’ll be arrested for animal abuse.” I began crying in front of the stranger.
Seven years after this conversation, two men were arrested for performing the exact same job we were, for the exact same company. They were charged with dozens of counts of animal cruelty—one for each puppy. Of all the things to be arrested for, I would take treason or kidnapping or armed robbery over animal abuse.
But prosecutions like that one against puppy mills are exceedingly rare.
“There are little slaps on the wrist here and there, but nothing serious,” Mary LaHay, president of Iowa Friends of Companion Animals, tells me. “The USDA bends over backwards to help these folks; if they’re out of line with the regulations, they’ll give them years to improve.”
It was the US Department of Agriculture that first began encouraging farmers to breed dogs following crop failure during World War II. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Animal Welfare Act, which required any breeder with more than three dogs to apply for a license, but only required cages be six inches taller than the dogs, and allowed them to live standing upon the wire cages for their entire lives, never touching the ground or seeing the light of day. The ASPCA estimates there are around 10,000 puppy mills in the US, many with over 1000 dogs inside a single facility.
While Iowa ranks second behind Missouri as the state with the most puppy mills, it was the first state to introduce the so-called “Ag-Gag” bills, which criminalizes the act of filming animal abuse in farming practices. And, according to LaHay, of all the top-breeding states in the US, Iowa is the only one with no state oversight for the operations.
“A significant reason there’s no legislative movement to regulate puppy mills is the opponents have very deep pockets,” says Devin Kelly, an Iowa attorney who offers legal services to clients with animal welfare cases.
These deep-pocketed opponents include, among many others, the American Kennel Club, which hires lobbyists to fight dog-breeding regulations under the same premise as the NRA with gun-control: Any regulation, no matter how small, threatens to shut down all dog breeding. (The NRA also lobbies to fight puppy-mill legislation, under the premise of protecting those who breed hunting dogs.)
State legislators in Missouri dismantled a voter-approved anti-puppy mill law in 2011, insisting the new demands for oversight would be too costly for the state (where the dog-breeding industry earns an estimated $1 billion annually). Missouri dominates the Humane Society's list of the“101 worst puppy mills,” with the Riverfront Times reporting last May that many dogs are currently “fed raw cow meet infested with maggots. Their faces are matted with so much feces that they can't see. Their wounds bleed and ooze without any medical treatment. They are left outside on wire floors to freeze to death.”
Missouri did pass the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, which the Humane Society says is not as strong as the original, voter-approved proposition, but at least requires "higher standards of care at commercial breeding kennels than Missouri had five years ago.”
Much of the legislation introduced to fight large-scale commercial dog breeding is not so much concerned with animal abuse as with taxes and consumer protection. These operations often get away without having a state sales-tax permit and report their own income, which allows them to skirt a lot of payments while operating within a multimillion dollar business. (LaHay estimates the industry brings in around $15 million annually in Iowa alone.) And the corners cut in not providing proper care to the dogs often results in pets that are loaded with ailments the new owner must contend with.
“A lot of the puppies coming out of these places are sick and genetically inferior,” LaHay says. “The lack of socialization early on often leads to aggression or fear. Puppies also learn their house-training from their mothers, but the mothers in mills aren’t house-trained. And then there are genetic anomalies like hip dysplasia, allergies, luxating patellas. So people are buying these dogs, falling in love with them, and then only later discovering all of these problems.”
During my week delivering puppy-mill dogs, pet store owners kept discovering serious problems with their health. Each was briefly examined for kennel cough, eye infections and other maladies, and if any symptoms were found, the dog would be rejected by the store and sent back to the mill in Iowa. My heart would leap at the site of these dogs placed into a large bin with toys and other puppies, feeling the warm sunlight coming through the shop windows. And so there was nothing worse when a dog would be turned away, forcing us to return him to the cold, dark van.
By the time we made it to New York City, there were only half a dozen dogs left, the number I’d originally imagined us transporting. But at this point there was little remaining momentum to explore the city I’d so often heard Lou Reed sing about. I just wanted to go home. Pete and I were both running a fever, and had barely slept throughout the week. The only dogs still in the van were sick, too.
Pete had become as disgusted with the operation as I was, and called his boss in Iowa to quit. This allowed us to take our time returning home. Somewhere in Ohio, we stopped at a park and let the remaining puppies out of their cages. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon, and we played with the dogs on a grassy hill. They ecstatically jumped about, experiencing grass and fresh-air for the first time in their short lives. We ran and they chased us. I tumbled to the ground and the dogs all over leapt all over me, licking my face and tickling my skin with their sinewy, cotton-like fur—never once understanding that we were the villains. We were the ones responsible for their misery. All they understood was this one moment of happiness and love, a single instance of grace, quite possibly was the only one they would ever know.
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